Just Finished Reading: Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South

Just Finished Reading: Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South

Random Thoughts on History: My musings on American, African American, Southern, Civil War, Reconstruction, and Public History topics and books.

Tim Talbott
Frankfort, Kentucky

The practice of slavery created many complications. Not the least of these were the children produced by relationships between slave owners and their female property. Certainly many of these associations were forced, as they were the creation of an unequal power relationship, but possibly others evolved into a more common law-type bond. Whatever the union between slave and owner, it is obvious that a number of these slaveholders felt an obligation to their mixed-race offspring, and sometimes toward the mothers, in that they sometimes left wills freeing and providing them with property or monetary gifts.

Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South, by Dr. Bernie D. Jones, a law professor at Suffolk University who earned her PhD in history at the University of Virginia, explores a number of the court cases in which the wills of slaveowners who made provisions for their mixed-race children were contested, most often by the white members of the owners’ families.

Jones explains that interracial relationships were tolerated in the Old South so long as they remained secret and hidden. When owners took measures to provide for their illegitimate children and their slave mothers is often when things got problematical. Judges often had to decide whether to respect the desires of the deceased owner or face a potentially hostile community who did not want free blacks in their neighborhoods. The author contends that judges that decided these cases normally described the men in these illicit relationships as three types; as “righteous fathers” who were attempting to right a wrong, “vulnerable old men” who had been duped or seduced by their slave women in order to receive favorable treatment, or “degraded creatures” who deserved no respect for destroying community norms…

Read the entire review here.

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